Eight weeks of bated breath

tAll eyes on Trimble tAdams to meet Mowlam tSinn Fein could join talks in September
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The next eight weeks should show whether the IRA cessation of violence will lead, as the Government hopes, to a new era of negotiation or whether the process might - like the last ceasefire - run into the sand.

Those eight weeks, leading up to the Government's target of all-party talks opening in mid-September, will show whether the complex web of politics and paramilitarism can be assembled into a workable framework for negotiation.

Republicans complained that John Major sought to slow activity down to a snail's pace and that 17 months of ceasefire passed without Sinn Fein being brought to the talks. This time Tony Blair has guaranteed, in writing, that momentum and pace will be the new order of the day.

For much of the next week attention will centre on Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who is pivotal to the future talks process. Tomorrow he meets Mr Blair.

Tomorrow also sees the opening of a three-day debate in the multi-party talks on the arms de-commissioning issue, culminating in a vote on Wednesday. The two smaller Unionist parties led by the Rev Ian Paisley and Robert McCartney have already made it clear that they will not be sitting down with Sinn Fein.

Mr Trimble has the option of accepting what the British and Irish governments have already tacitly accepted, which is that there is no real guarantee of either the IRA or the violent loyalists handing in weaponry at any early stage.

He could agree, with great reluctance, to enter talks on that basis. Or he could align himself with Mr Paisley and say that he will not be staying in talks on the terms offered. Mr Blair and Dublin have made it clear that their position on de-commissioning will not be shifted, but both governments can be expected to offer concessions to Mr Trimble in the hope of keeping him on board.

The Unionist leader, with the complicity of London and Dublin, may make no clear-cut decision on Wednesday and wait while the general state of Protestant opinion is tested.

At an early stage there will be meetings between Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam. There will also be an early meeting between Mr Adams and the chairman of the Belfast multi-party talks, former US Senator George Mitchell. It will also be open to Mr Adams to re-visit the US, which has recently been closed to him.

Mid-August brings the Orange marching season's secondary peak, with a large Protestant march in Londonderry. If tensions are running high at the time it holds the potential for trouble.

Assuming the IRA ceasefire has held, Sinn Fein will be eligible to join the re-convened talks on 15 September. The Government has set an ambitious timetable for these, hoping that by the end of May next year an agreement will have emerged which can be put to both parts of Ireland in referendums.

But the form and composition of negotiations will depend crucially on Mr Trimble's attitude. If he stays in, London and Dublin will celebrate and, keeping to the present talks formula, will settle down for intensive negotiations.

If he pulls out there will be legal doubts about whether the talks could continue in their present format, since the rules suggest progress is dependent on "sufficient consensus" among Unionist and nationalist repres- entatives.

This would be impossible if the representatives of all three major Unionist parties were absent, although this stipulation may be capable of amendment. In either case talks can be expected to continue either within the present structure or in modified format.

Either way the Government will be anxious to secure as much Unionist input as possible. If, as seems likely, Mr Paisley remains in what one observer described as "indignation mode," then the pressure will stay on Mr Trimble to represent the Unionist community's interests, ideally by entering the talks but, if not, by negotiating at a distance.

The above represents a sketch of the likely framework of events in the next eight crucial weeks. As the last ceasefire showed, however, so many groups, personalities and forces are involved that various unforeseen emergencies undoubtedly lie ahead to test both the planning skills and the crisis management talents of all concerned. It promises to be a hectic time.